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Stephen Hacker

Quality Insider

Critical to Quality: The Customer

ASQ’s global research confirms that customer input improves all stages of production and service

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - 17:04

In an attempt to better understand and accommodate customers’ needs, organizations are involving customers in product design, prototyping, production, supply chain planning, and more. Customers are increasingly engaged in quality processes, participating at points where quality is critical to overall success and not just at the point of product delivery.

In some organizations, quality and the customer have become so closely aligned in processes such as sharing quality-specific data, defining requirements, and capturing actual perceptions of performance that ASQ coined the term “Qustomer” to describe this relationship, and used the term in the “Discoveries 2013” report, part of ASQ’s Global State of Quality Research.

The first-ever global research of its kind, the Global State of Quality Research is provided in three reports comprising baseline data about the current state of practices that quality professionals and organizations use. Also available is a series of spotlight reports, including one on the Qustomer, which analyze the themes that emerged from the research.

To conduct the research, ASQ partnered with the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a knowledge management and business research organization. Nearly 2,000 organizations from 22 countries were included in the analysis of the inaugural research.

“Discoveries 2013” was released during ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement in May 2013. The report provides a high-level view of the data and core themes identified from the research results. According to this report, 13 percent of the respondents worldwide highly agree, and 43 percent somewhat agree, with the statement: “At our organization, the belief is that the customer is the only person qualified to specify what ‘quality’ means.” In the United States, 14.4 percent highly agree, and 37.3 percent somewhat agree with the same statement.

Results also show that 59 percent of respondents worldwide agree, and 27 percent somewhat agree, that they “communicate with customers regarding our efforts to address their needs and complaints.” In the United States, slightly less than 61 percent agree, and slightly more than 28 percent somewhat agree, that they “communicate with customers regarding our efforts to address their needs and complaints.”

“The Qustomer” spotlight report provides further details about the relationship between quality and the customer as well as first-hand accounts of companies that successfully engage their customers in quality processes. Companies like Airbus, ABF Freight, and Bombardier Inc. are among those featured in the report.

For example, Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategy and technology consulting firm, has frequent quality discussions with its customers. The most valuable tool the company uses is called the “dependent quality assessment,” according to Ron Lear, a corporate quality director. “We basically talk to clients based around voice-of-customer methodology,” says Lear. “We go to the customer and ask, ‘How are we doing in these areas?’”

The organization uses the feedback to better address the issues raised and to improve their products and services. “Then we circle back to them after a period of time with the action items that we’ve identified,” adds Lear. “We’ll say, ‘This is what we heard from our previous session, and here’s the action we’ve been taking. Are we on the right track? Do you think that we are performing better?’ It goes into that continual monitoring phase.”

Outstanding quality requires a high level of participation from internal and external customers throughout improvement processes. However, it takes a delicate balance for the processes to be effective: Too much interaction with customers can be costly, but too little won’t yield adequate information to improve quality.

“You have to be talking to the customer every day,” says Joe Davis, a director of training and quality at ABF Freight System Inc. “You can’t just contact them once a month or once every six months and ask, ‘Are we doing OK? Everything good?’ You have to have a constant dialogue with them.”

According to “The Qustomer” spotlight report, 67.4 percent of research respondents share quality performance, to some degree, with customers. Of the respondents from the United States, 66.1 percent say they share quality performance with customers.

Organizations with annual revenues of less than $100 million tend to provide information about product or service quality with customers more than larger organizations, according to the research. In fact, 74.2 percent of companies with annual revenues of less than $100 million agree or highly agree with the statement: “Information on our product quality performance is shared with customers.” Only 60.3 percent of organizations with annual revenues of more than $10 billion agree or highly agree with the same statement.

For organizations in which quality is governed by senior leadership, 83 percent share quality product and service information with customers. For organizations that don’t include quality measures as part of their organizational strategy, only 21 percent share quality product and service information with customers.

Organizations that incorporate the customer in quality processes share several characteristics, including:
• Quality is a core part of the organization’s strategy
• There is transparency about quality measures across the entire organization
• Quality processes are used for more than just meeting compliance

Engaging the Qustomer in quality processes seems like a great way to discover opportunities for improvement; however, companies interviewed for “The Qustomer” spotlight report noted several challenges including cultural differences, intellectual property issues, and regulatory standards. But these challenges can be overcome though frequent communication with customers.

The Global State of Quality Research explores the governance and management, outcomes and measures, competencies and training, and culture of quality.

Research results show that manufacturing organizations are more likely to develop normalized, effective quality measures, and service organizations are more likely to view quality as a strategic asset and competitive differentiator.

Out of all respondents for organizations in which the senior quality leader reports directly to the CEO, 30 percent view quality as a competitive differentiator. Of the organizations in which the senior quality leader does not report to the CEO, only 11 percent view quality as a competitive differentiator.

The ASQ Global State of Quality Research has created a baseline on how organizations “do” quality. The feedback on the reports from the quality community has been overwhelmingly positive with requests for data and analysis on topics like the role of innovation in quality and processes for developing a sustainable quality culture.

The research related to the Qustomer substantiates the value of engaging the customer early and often during product development and continuous improvement processes. This not only improves quality enterprisewide but also creates a rewarding total customer experience.

For more information about the Global State of Quality Research and to download reports, visit globalstateofquality.org.

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About The Author

Stephen Hacker’s picture

Stephen Hacker

Stephen Hacker, CEO of Transformation Systems International LLC, consults organizations worldwide on transformation methodologies, leadership development, and team performance. After completing his corporate career as a senior leader with Procter & Gamble, he served as executive director of The Performance Center, a multi-university organization conducting action research focused upon individual, team, and organizational performance. He is the author of several books, the most recent, How to Coach Individuals, Teams, and Organizations to Master Transformational Change (Business Expert Press, 2012). Hacker is the chair of ASQ’s Global Advisory Committee and chair-elect of ASQ’s board of directors (2013).